December 12, 2013

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE Improves The Franchise On Almost Every Level

"Remember who the enemy is."
My wife recently finished a master's degree in Children's Literature, so suffice it to say that YA fiction is totally her jam these days.  She LOOOOOOOOVES her some Hunger Games, having read all three books multiple times and watched her Blu-ray of the first movie more frequently than I can count.  I haven't read any of the books (it's doubtful that I ever will, simply by virtue of the fact that I don't have time to read a lot of books these days) and I think the first movie is kind of fine, but it certainly doesn't get me all hot and bothered.  It felt like that movie wasn't really interested in exploring any of the parts of its universe that seemed the most fascinating to me.  While Jamie has been waiting for Catching Fire with baited breath (and even took a bus to NY to see it with a friend) I've just been hoping the second installment would expand the world of Panem in a way that would make me give any kind of a shit.

Mission accomplished!

I am still not entirely won over, but now I'm at least interested in this franchise.  The thing is that I feel like I'm interested in all the wrong stuff, or at least none of the stuff they want me to like.  I fell instantly and madly in love with Jena Malone's punk rock warrior Johanna Mason, a former victor who's straight up PISSED to be back in the arena and she doesn't give a shit who knows it.  She's angry and funny and sexy and injects some sorely needed energy into a story full of largely morose characters.  Johanna is my favorite of the new crop of competitors, but in truth most of them are pretty great.  The "careers," aka the Abercrombie models who don't want a rebellion to spoil their cushy lives in the Capitol, continue to be virtual non-entities, a collection of beautiful faces for our heroes to kill off in a frustratingly bloodless fashion.  But Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer are delightfully odd additions and I must admit that Sam Claflin brings a surprising level of complexity to Finnick Odair.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman's gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee is a HUGE step up from Wes Bentley's Facial Hair, and while it's fun that they keep him at arm's length to make him more enigmatic, I really wanted to see more of him.  I'm glad that he'll be sticking around for at least one more film.  (Book three is split into two parts.)  Stanley Tucci remains fabulous with his blue hair and giant teeth, and Woody Harrelson continues to entertain as the mentor who's alcoholic but in a fun way.  Above all, I am totally in awe of Elizabeth Banks, who took her ridiculous, shrill clown of a character and imbued her with emotional depth and genuine soul.  After the last film I would have been happy to see her take the first bullet in the eventual revolution, but now I'm legitimately fond of Effie, who makes an adorable mother to the ragtag (quasi-incestuous) family from District 12.

I also found myself wondering more about the greater world of this dystopian future.  I know that the fictional nation of Panem is supposed to be located in North America (my understanding is that District 12 is somewhere in the Appalachians?) but what about the rest of the planet?  Is Panem the only remaining populated continent, or are there people in Europe and Asia that simply don't give a shit about what's happening across the ocean?  And how did Panem happen in the first place?  What happened to the good old US of A?  Is this the result of a nuclear war?  Ecological disaster?  Perhaps the incredible wealth/resource gap of Panem implies there was some kind of bloody civil war.  This stuff is often the most interesting part of a story set in a future with such a dramatically different status quo than the present, so of course I'm never going to get the answers to any of these questions.  Apparently Suzanne Collins was far more interested in coming up with a list of character names that feel like a Mad Libs compilation of the mispronunciations of a four year old.

I remain utterly ambivalent about the love triangle because, while Katniss is a badass, both of her male suitors are utterly boring.  And that's coming from someone who's been a big supporter of Josh Hutcherson since he was 13 years old.  But Peeta Mellark is lame sauce, pathetically pining away for the girl who doesn't want him and also apparently incapable of holding his own in a fight.  The amount of time he spends being critically injured, rescued and carried around like a sad sack of potatoes is bordering on laughable.  (According to Jamie it's even worse in the book - dude can't even swim.)  I've been assured that Peeta gets way better in the third installment, so here's hoping.  Liam Hemsworth doesn't fare much better as Gale, a character who feels like he's only had about ten scenes over the course of both movies.  At least he gets to take some kind of heroic action this time around (although his most heroic deed takes place entirely off screen) but Gale just isn't a fully developed enough character for me to invest any kind of emotion in him.  And while I like the idea of President Evil Donald Sutherland, in reality he spends the majority of his scenes simply sitting around watching TV screens while making menacing insinuations.  This may be intended to make him look like some kind of Machiavellian manipulator, but instead it feels like Sutherland had a rider in his contract stipulating that he would stay seated through 90% of his scenes.

On the flip side, Jennifer Lawrence continues to completely own this franchise.  I think they made Katniss a bit too wishy-washy this time around, miring her in a "refusal of the call" storyline that goes on far too long.  It's ends up being intrinsic to the film's final reveal in which we discover that Katniss has been purposely left out of the loop for some extremely important stuff, but I can't help thinking she would have been far more useful if she wasn't being kept in the dark.  It feels too much like a clunky attempt to adhere to a rigid story structure, as opposed to something that's organic and character driven.  But Lawrence is so strong in the role that most of those complaints don't really hit you until the drive home.  And, if the film's final shot is any indication, this whole movie essentially serves as Katniss's last attempt to play by the rules of the Capitol before fully embracing her role as hero of the rebellion, so they've got to push her patience to the limit before she swings back around to the other side.  Katniss Everdeen is the Luke Skywalker to a whole generation of young girls and that's something that can only have awesome results for the future.  It's great to see such a strong female role model that not only anchors this franchise, but elevates it practically through sheer force of Jennifer Lawrence's will.

This is easily director Francis Lawrence's best film, and I quite liked Constantine and the first two thirds of I Am Legend.  He brings some much needed scope to the world of Panem and directs the action with far greater confidence (and far less shaky cam) than previous director Gary Ross.  It surely helps that Lionsgate significantly pumped up the budget this time around and it absolutely shows on screen, as opposed to the Twilight movies that always looked like they were being shot in the producer's backyard even after they were killing it at the box office.  I was hoping that we'd get a bit more brutality in the arena this time around, especially considering how traumatic the games are to everyone who manages to survive.  (Haymitch is a drunk and Katniss definitely has PTSD.)  But the violence remains sadly restrained, as if they're afraid to alienate their target audience with the central plot device of the franchise.  Hopefully the next films won't continue to pull their punches when the story (hopefully) turns to all out war.

I'm now realizing that this piece comes off pretty negative, but I really did enjoy Catching Fire.  It's exciting purely on a surface level, but the story also managed to keep me guessing throughout; the big reveal at the end I did not see coming (except for the "shocking" part that happens off screen, which was very clearly telegraphed ten minutes into the movie) and once the games began, I was constantly trying to puzzle out the motivations of the various tributes in an effort to figure out who was trustworthy and who was not.  I've always suspected that this was a franchise I was going to enjoy more at the end than the beginning, and this is such a significant step up from the first entry that my theory feels vindicated.  

The Hunger Games is probably never going to be a franchise I get legitimately excited about, certainly not in the same way that my wife does.  But it's now officially been upgraded from "watchable" to "interesting," for whatever that's worth.

Bring on the revolution.


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Title: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Sam Claflin, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Jordans IMAX